When I was very small, there were very few books in our house, but, aside from the various children's books, there were two regular books which fascinated me. One was an old medical book, profusely illustrated with plates printed in the lurid colors produced by the printing process used in the era when the book was published, the 1930s. There were pictures of the symptoms of various diseases, pictures of internal organs, cross sections of the male and female bodies, including a pregnant woman. I found great delight in all of them. Whether it was a mouth with lesions caused by tertiary syphilis, a cancerous mole, healthy brain tissue, a cross section of a penis and testes, a fractured femur, a damaged heart valve, it all held such interest for me that my parents were convinced that I would become a physician.
The other book with which I spent many happy hours over the years was a pre-WWII Collier's World Atlas. I loved the oversized pages full of colorful maps. True, the colors were less intense than those of the medical book, but I still found them enjoyable. I liked tracing the rivers and railway lines and national borders with my finger, reading the names of towns and mountains and lakes, matching them up with the photographs in the gazetteer at the back of the book. By the time I was six years old, I had a very good picture of the map of the world in my head.
My favorite maps in the atlas were not the colorful national maps, however. I liked the plain, black and white street maps of cities the best. I knew the shape of Manhattan, the arc of the lake shore in Chicago, the curves of the Mississippi as it ran through New Orleans, the pier-studded edge of San Francisco, and I knew the general shape of the street patterns in each place. If someone had asked me for directions from Wall Street to Grand Central Station in New York, I could have given them, even though I had never been to the place.
As I grew older, my interest in the human anatomy faded, but my interest in maps continued. I collected those maps given out by gasoline companies. In 5th grade, one of our class assignments was to write to a state for information about it. I drew Alaska, and when the envelope arrived at my house, I was delighted to find that a road map of the state was included. I then wrote on my own to every state in the union, the provinces of Canada, and the tourist agencies or chambers of commerce of many major cities. I received many packages of information and many colorful brochures, but I was always most pleased by those places which sent me maps.
It was also about this time that I began drawing maps of imaginary cities. As an American, of course, I usually started with a grid of some sort, but I soon learned to create complex variations. I would draw each city as though its history were taking place as I drew. I would place buildings such as courthouses, post offices, theatres, department stores, schools, and so on, and, as the place grew, I would replace the older, outgrown buildings with newer, larger structures. I would demolish neighborhoods to create new parks or museums, cut through new streets, build central railroad stations, create colleges, whatever I could think of. I wore out the erasers on my pencils, and rubbed the paper thin.
I started out with sheets of typewriter paper, but found them too limiting. I began to use tablets of drawing paper of the largest size I could find. Finally, when I was about twelve years old, I was in the supermarket one day and saw an oversized roll of shelf paper, fifty feet long and seventeen inches wide. I bought it, and began my ultimate project. I began drawing at one end, and extended my imaginary city out along the length of the roll, all the while keeping in mind the fact that the place would be much wider than the roll of paper. I imagined the part of the city on the roll to be a linear center along the spine of a great boulevard. I suppose I had in mind something like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, or Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. I kept drawing, and re-drawing, for months. When I came to the end of the roll, I drew a beach. It was the end of the city, and the last big map I ever drew. I must have gotten at least that part of the obsession out of my system, and rather cheaply. I think the roll of shelf paper had cost me 79 cents.
Just as my interest in the medical book did not lead to my becoming a doctor, my obsession with maps did not send me into cartography. I still enjoy maps. I buy a USGS map from time to time, I have several atlases in the house, I study the maps that come with the National Geographic Magazine. And once in a while, I will still draw a map of some place real or some place I have imagined. And, somewhere in a box in my garage, I'm pretty sure there is a roll of shelf paper with a fifty foot long map of a place that I imagined when I was twelve years old. Had I been born a couple of decades later, perhaps I'd have spent that time playing video games- probably games involving some sort of maps. But then I would have no record of my youthful madness. I'm satisfied that everything is as it should be. Everything is in its place.